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Kurdish Politician Fouad Massoum Named President Of Iraq

By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Iraq’s parliament appointed a new president on Thursday as lawmakers inched closer to forming a new government, even as violence continued to engulf the country.

Veteran Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum, 76, was chosen as Iraq’s second president, a largely ceremonial post in the Iraqi governing structure. He prevailed in a runoff parliamentary vote that saw most of his opponents withdraw after the first round.

His victory comes one day after he was selected as the candidate of the Kurdish bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

A former lecturer and instructor at the University of Basra with a degree from the Arab world’s elite Islamic studies institution Al-Azhar, Massoum is a member and mainstay of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, a major Kurdish faction. He is also considered to be a confidant of his predecessor, Jalal Talibani, who returned to Iraq only a few days earlier from medical treatment in Germany.

Despite its largely ceremonial nature, the presidential post was the subject of intense jockeying among Iraq’s parliamentary blocs, divided largely along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Under a power-sharing agreement forged in the wake of the 2003, U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, the president must come from the Kurdish bloc, with a Sunni head of parliament and a Shiite prime minister.

Difficulties in reaching consensus among the various blocs have led to governmental paralysis, even as the nation faces an armed rebellion that threatens the state.

Despite the selection of a speaker and a president, the difficult choice of who will replace current two-term Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains.

The prime minister is the nation’s most powerful elected official. Al-Maliki has vowed to run for a third term, despite mounting pressure from regional and international allies to step down.

Critics have accused al-Maliki of pursing policies that favor Shiites, Iraq’s majority, at the expense of Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Al-Maliki denies running a sectarian-based government and has insisted that he will not back down from seeking a third term.

Still, even some of his Shiite allies have become disenchanted with al-Maliki’s governing style.

The nation’s Sunni minority is in open revolt against al-Maliki’s government. Sunni rebels allied with the so-called Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway faction that views Shiites as infidels, have taken over more than one-third of Iraq, including Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city.

Tens of thousands of Shiites, Christians, and others have fled the advance of the Islamic State, which now exerts control over a broad swath of territory in Iraq and neighboring Syria. Scenes of Iraqi army units falling back in disarray last month as Sunni rebels advanced were a humiliation for the central government and its military, which received extensive training from U.S. forces during the American occupation that ended in 2011.

Government forces and allied Shiite militias are fighting to recapture territory in the north and west lost to Sunni rebels. But neither side seems to be advancing.

The capital, Baghdad, with a Shiite majority, appears firmly in the hands of the government, as does the Shiite-dominated south, including the oil-rich area near the southern city of Basra. But car bomb attacks have caused heavy casualties in the capital in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Kurds in the north have taken advantage of the tumult to expand the territory under the umbrella of their semi-autonomous regional government. Many Arab lawmakers view the Kurdish advance as a land grab and a bid to extend control over oil-rich territory near the disputed city of Kirkuk, which is now under the control of Kurdish forces.

As politicians in Baghdad struggle to form a new government, violence continues to ravage the nation.

Outside Baghdad, a coordinated assault involving roadside bombs and suicide bombers on a convoy transporting prisoners left 51 prisoners and nine police officers dead and approximately 16 wounded, according to local media outlets on Thursday. The assault targeted a convoy transporting prisoners from Al-Hout Prison in Taji, north of Baghdad.

According to the pro-government Sumariyah news, a roadside bomb exploded beside the convoy as it passed a major intersection. Two gunmen then appeared, spraying bullets before detonating their explosive belts near the vehicles.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Anti-government news sources blamed pro-government Shiite militias, specifically the Iran-funded League of the Righteous.

Since last month’s assault by Sunni rebels, the government has scrambled to bolster its forces with Shiite volunteer militiamen, galvanized into action to defend the country against the Sunni insurgents.

AFP Photo / Ali Al-Saadi

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Iraqi Forces Battle Rebels In Baqoubah; Prisoners Reportedly Slain

By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

IRBIL, Iraq — Forces loyal to the Iraqi government repulsed an insurgent attack on a provincial town northeast of Baghdad, state media reported Tuesday, as Iraqi troops bolstered defenses around the capital.

The central government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been mobilizing troops and volunteers to counter a challenge from Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who have made sweeping territorial gains in northern and central Iraq.

The sectarian-fueled clashes have raised fears in Washington and elsewhere that Iraq could descend into a civil war like the conflict that has been raging for more than three years in neighboring Syria.

On Monday, state media said, armed gunmen launched an attack on strategically situated Baqoubah, the capital of Diyala province, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. But officials said the Iraqi army, bolstered by pro-government militiamen, beat back the assault on the city, which was a bloody battleground during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Opposition activists, however, said rebel fighters had seized control of several neighborhoods in Baqoubah, releasing all detainees from a police station and attacking an army battalion.

There were conflicting accounts about the reported deaths of prisoners at a jail in Baqoubah. Each side blamed the other for the deaths of almost four dozen Sunni detainees at the jail, the Associated Press reported, but neither account could be independently verified.

The Diyala police chief, Maj. Gen. Jamil Shamri, told local media that the clashes near a police station resulted in the deaths of nine insurgents and one pro-government fighter, and that police had “returned to the station and it is now totally under their control.”

Clashes also continued in Tal Afar, an ethnically diverse town 260 miles northwest of Baghdad in Nineveh province, a day after government officials and armed groups made conflicting assertions of control of the area.

The militants last week seized a number of cities and towns, including Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, and Tikrit, the hometown of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

Bulos reported from Irbil and McDonnell from Beirut.

Interested in the Crisis in Iraq? You can learn more here.
Photo: Ali al-Saadi via AFP

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Syrian Military Captures Crusader Castle From Rebels

By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — The Syrian military on Thursday captured a historic Crusader castle that had long been a highly symbolic rebel bastion, the latest victory in an ongoing offensive along the Lebanese border, according to government and opposition accounts.

Krak des Chevaliers, a colossal hilltop fortress dating to the 12th century named after a medieval Crusader order, was overrun after a series of fierce battles in the nearby town of Hossen that concluded with government troops hoisting a Syrian flag above the celebrated citadel.

The image of the national colors rising above the renowned monument, a moment captured on video broadcast on Syrian state television, was a dramatic indication of how pro-government forces have gained ground in recent months against deeply divided rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

“The Syrian Arab Army raises the flag of the nation over the Krak des Chevaliers castle in Homs province after crushing the terrorists who were holed up there,” triumphant state television declared, echoing the official description of rebels as “terrorists.”

As the Syrian civil war this month entered its fourth year, the government boasted of several important advances. On Sunday, the military overran the longtime rebel stronghold of Yabroud, not far from the Lebanese border about 70 miles southeast of Krak des Chevaliers.

Sealing rebel supply and logistics lines from neighboring Lebanon has long been a major focus of the Syrian military. The capture of the castle and nearby towns, along with earlier military advances in the border zone, have curbed the rebels’ ability to ferry in supplies and fresh fighters from Lebanon.

Krak des Chevaliers, visible from the main highway from Homs city to the Mediterranean coast, had long been a high-profile symbol of opposition strength in strategic western Homs province, the gateway to central and northern Syria from Damascus, the capital.

Islamist rebels recognized the strategic benefits of the mountain-top castle just as Christian Crusaders had done centuries earlier.

The castle’s construction is attributed to the Knights Hospitaller, who held the site until it was captured in 1271 by Muslim forces.

The fortress was a major tourist attraction until the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011. Antigovernment insurgents captured the site and surrounding towns.

The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has reportedly suffered extensive damage from mortar attacks, airstrikes and gun battles. The extent of the destruction at the castle is unclear.

One little-noticed effect of the Syrian conflict has been the damage to numerous historic sites in a nation that has been a crossroads for various civilizations. The Old City of Aleppo, another World Heritage site that was a terminus of the Silk Road, also has been pummeled during the Syrian conflict, with many of its buildings and parts of its acclaimed covered market destroyed. The ruins of Palmyra, a trading hub of the Roman empire in what is now eastern Syria, has seen some of its monuments looted, authorities say.

Conservationists say it is impossible to determine the extent of the devastation to Syria’s historic patrimony until some semblance of peace is restored and experts can visit hard-hit areas and make an assessment. That may take a long time. All diplomatic efforts to end the conflict have faltered.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based pro-opposition group, confirmed the fall of the Krak des Chevaliers, reporting that “no less than 12 fighters were killed … in clashes with regime forces in the countryside of Hossen.” Some accounts put the rebel death toll in the dozens.

The government’s advance, accompanied by artillery bombardment, prompted many rebels to flee to neighboring Lebanon. At least 25 wounded Syrians crossed into Lebanese territory, Lebanon’s national news agency reported.

AFP Photo/Jim Lopez

Fracking Brings Oil Boom To South Texas Town — For A Price

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas — Just a few years ago this was a sleepy town of 5,600, and people eked out a living from the land. They farmed, worked ranches and leased their property to hunters to make a few dollars.

Now, an oil and gas boom is transforming the economy of south Texas, turning Carrizo Springs into a busy city of at least 40,000.

Texas oil companies, tapping a vast formation called the Eagle Ford shale, have nearly doubled oil production over the last two years and by next year are expected to produce 4 million barrels a day. That would catapult Texas ahead of Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates to become the fifth-biggest oil producer in the world.

Property owners who have seen the state’s fortunes rise and fall during oil booms in years past — before the aging oil wells that first spurted “Texas tea” went dry — are suddenly making new millions selling and leasing, earning them the nickname “Eagle Ford Hillbillies.” The region is set to reap more than $90 billion in the next decade.

But the newfound prosperity comes at a price. The highway leading into Carrizo Springs is cracked and pitted from the heavy traffic. Sexual assaults, thefts and crashes are up. Women frequent parking lots selling perfume — a pretext for prostitution. There’s a new strip club.

The sheriff has hired 15 deputies — doubling the force — and complains that Mexican drug cartels are taking advantage of the chaotic atmosphere, using fake oil trucks to conceal and transport narcotics.

Unemployment dropped from 12 percent to 4 percent countywide in the last five years. Help is wanted at the nearby Oil Patch Cafe, Dairy Queen, Church’s Chicken and pretty much every restaurant around. Roadside signs advertise pipeline supply services, shale tank trucks and temporary oil field housing — complete with gourmet chefs and maid service.

At quitting time, fleets of white energy company trucks occupy the parking lots. Companies have pitched more than a dozen military-style man camps, or temporary housing complexes, spartan and secure as overseas military bases. RV parks multiplied alongside them, from two at the start of the boom to 70.

The number of hotels tripled. So did membership in the chamber of commerce, and city sales tax revenues.

Mayor Adrian DeLeon, who has been expanding his convenience store and restaurant to cater to oil workers, is talking about starting a community college.

The challenge of managing a boom is similar to managing a drilling operation, said Michael Webber, deputy director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute: “How do we harness as much good from it without getting left with just a bad residue?”

The trick, he said, is not to drill too hard too fast. Instead, smart drillers milk the oil field slowly for all it’s worth.

“If the cities are smart, they’ll do the same thing,” Webber said.

The boom has enriched scores of small towns in more than a dozen rural counties in south Texas not known for oil and gas exploration. Oil had a brief heyday here in the 1980s, but has never defined the economy and culture the way it has in Houston and West Texas.

That changed in 2008, when new drilling technology for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, tapped a rich Texas shale formation running 50 miles wide and 400 miles long. It was named after the town where it was discovered: Eagle Ford.

As of last month, 5,021 oil and 2,468 gas wells had been drilled across the shale, with an additional 5,504 permitted, according to the permitting agency, the Texas Railroad Commission. Back in 2008, only 26 permits had been issued for Eagle Ford shale.

Drilling operations are visible from space. At night a golden arc of light — from natural gas flaring and electrical lights on drilling platforms — sweeps east from Carrizo Springs to the heart of Texas. By 2022, the deposits are expected to generate 128,000 jobs and untold side effects across the region.

“This is transitional for south Texas — it gives us the opportunity to create new communities,” said Leodoro Martinez Jr., who leads the Eagle Ford Shale Consortium, a group of local leaders.
Eagle Ford is not the only shale boom in the state. West Texas, traditional oil country, is booming again thanks to its own shale in the Permian Basin.

Texas companies were producing 2.7 million barrels of oil a day last fall — more than every other top oil-producing state, including Alaska, California, North Dakota and Wyoming, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Last week, officials at one of the largest oil producers in the country, Occidental Petroleum, announced plans to move its headquarters from Los Angeles to Houston.

Texas oil production is projected to surpass 3 million barrels a day this year and to reach 4 million a day next year.

It’s not clear how long the Eagle Ford boom will last. Some experts forecast a decade of productive drilling, others 50 years.

Photo: Danielfoster437 via Flickr

Twin Suicide Car Bombs Strike Lebanon’s Capital

By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Twin suicide car bombs ripped through a residential district of the Lebanese capital Wednesday in the latest deadly attack believed tied to the war raging in neighboring Syria, according to official and witness accounts.

At least three people were killed and scores injured in the blasts, which may have targeted a nearby Iranian cultural center.

The strikes — the latest in an escalating series of bombings in Lebanon — occurred during the morning rush hour near a busy traffic circle in the densely populated Bir Hassan neighborhood.

The number of wounded topped 100, according to a Lebanese Red Cross official at the scene. Some reports put the death toll at five.

The near simultaneous blasts were both the result of suicide attackers in explosive-rigged cars, a BMW and a Mercedes, the Lebanese Army said.

Witnesses described a scene of chaos as lethal shrapnel flew in the air, fires raged and body parts were scattered about the streets.

“I was driving in my car when suddenly I heard this huge blast,” recalled Ahmad Lutayf, who said he was almost impaled by a windshield wiper blasted from his vehicle. “I can’t believe I got out in one piece.”

The nearby Iranian cultural center may have been the target, according to initial reports. One bomb detonated about 50 meters from the facility, while the other exploded near an orphanage.

Iran is a major ally of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Last November, twin suicide car bombers targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing almost two dozen people, including an Iranian cultural attache, and injuring more than 100.

In Tehran, the official media reported that no Iranian diplomats were killed in Wednesday’s twin blasts.

An al-Qaida-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, took responsibility for Wednesday’s attack in a message posted on its Twitter account. The same group said it was behind last year’s strike outside the Iranian embassy.

At the chaotic bomb site, scenes of turmoil unfolded in frenzied images that are becoming numbingly familiar in Lebanon, which has become a secondary front of the Syrian war. Paramedics cared for the wounded, firefighters struggled to douse lingering blazes from battered vehicles and jittery Army and security personnel cordoned off the zone.

The ongoing string of bombings linked to the Syrian war has left Lebanon on edge and raised international concern about security in this strategically situated nation of 4 million, wedged between Syria and Israel along the Mediterranean. Lebanon is also home to more than one million refugees from war-ravaged Syria.

The attacks occurred just days after Lebanon announced a new coalition government, breaking 10 months of political stalemate. Wednesday’s attacks seemed to dash hopes that a more stable governing structure would stem the country’s rising violence.

Lebanon is officially neutral in the Syrian war, but various Lebanese factions have lined up on different sides of the almost three-year-old conflict. The war has exacerbated tensions among Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations.

Al-Qaida and other militant Sunni groups with a strong presence in Lebanon are fierce foes of Shiite Iran and its allies, including Syrian President Assad and Shiite-led Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and paramilitary group. Militant Sunni factions have said they were taking the Syrian battle to the Lebanese homeland of Hezbollah, which has dispatched fighters to Syria to assist Assad’s military.

Wednesday’s attacks, like previous strikes, occurred in a largely Shiite southern district of the capital where support is strong for Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said the group will never accede to demands from “extremists” that Hezbollah withdraw its forces from Syria.

AFP Photo/Karam al-Masr